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March 10, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Keepin’ It Hyperreal

As a young boy about to leave high school, I took a momentary break from being an aloof dick and engaging with school events as little as possible to fill out a question for my school-leavers yearbook – “Where do you see yourself in ten years? Answer with one word.” My first prophecy, “incontinent”, was declined, as was my second (“indisposed”) and third (“Pokemon-Master”). My callow sense of humour aside, at the time I believed I was in control of my future; I wasn’t aware that, while there are some things I can control, other societal strictures and phenomena will hold me inevitably in thrall. One of these pervasive, permeating things is ‘hyperreality’.
 

‘Hyperreality’ is a term coined by a crotchety old academic, Jean Baudrillard, to describe a perceived societal shift away from an ‘objective’ reality and into a fabricated one. What we might perceive as reality is in fact a simulation. It’s not that these referents don’t exist, exactly, but that they are trapped in a recursion loop. Consider the “most photographed barn in America” in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, whose representation as an item of banal fame is self-generating, or signs that don’t reference anything concrete but instead reference other signs in an endless and futile cycle. Essentially, hyperreality is the continuing erosion of the distinction between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ that occurs as developments in technology are made. If this blather seems confusing and needlessly arcane, you’re not wrong, but rest easy; clarification is on its way. Deep breaths.

***

Imagine you’re in a theme park – Disneyland. You’re surrounded by the hustle and bustle of crowds, shrieking peals of children’s laughter, a faint scent of candy floss. You might be about to board a ride, or be moving from ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean’ to the rollercoaster; no doubt, despite yourself, you’re having a great time. Then, when it comes time to leave, you enter the car park – and suddenly a weird sort of loneliness overcomes you. You find yourself “in the absolute solitude of the parking lot – a veritable concentration camp”. The juxtaposition with the fun you had at the theme park couldn’t be more stark.

This is how hyperreality was described to me as a fresh-faced first year, and I think it’s the most effective illustration because it avoids the theoretical explanations one usually couches it in, opting instead for a visceral ideation we’re all likely to have felt. The theme park here represents the virtual and the artificial stimulation of human consciousness, while the car park is the alienation that comprises the human condition, and which Disneyland attempts to allay.

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a spurned lover attempts to erase the memories of his relationship. Eternal Sunshine is a decade old now, and though science hasn’t quite managed to locate specific memories and rewrite experiences in the nebulous realm of the brain, it’s no longer out of the realm of plausibility. Researchers have discovered a gene, TET1, that overwrites old memories with new ones, and it is already being proposed as a treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder after successful trials on mice. This ability to construct a reality that did not actually occur blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s not, and is certainly an example of what Baudrillard foretold.

Similarly, in the recently released Her, a man falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system (voiced seductively by Scarlett Johansson, so it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds). This is the phenomenon of love placed upon a pre-programmed, technologically advanced machine; but is it necessarily entirely artificial if the feeling is genuine, aided but not induced by technology? This is where those worried about the increasing prevalence of the hyperreality have perhaps genuine concern – what if, in the course of technological and media progress, we somehow lose our humanity along the way?

That said, I had a few qualms with this hyperreality business. How do you decide what constitutes ‘reality’ and ‘non-reality’? It seems a bit tenuous at best, and at worst an extension of the scare-mongering sanctimony with which most of the elderly tend to view technology. And, even if it is true, is it necessarily a bad thing if it makes people feel happy and fulfilled? How do you decide what makes someone genuinely happy or fulfilled anyway? I feared we were fast entering psychological and philosophical territory that I could not broach on my own, so after getting rebuffed by the Politics department (not one of them was qualified to speak on postmodern theory smgh), I turned to English Lecturer Dr James Meffan for guidance.

***

Dr Meffan (who I affectionately call Dr Meffanphetamine) began our discussion by explaining that the concept of ‘hyperreality’, for those who agree that it is a phenomenon, is an immensely divisive one in the academic community. Some “pessimists” perceive it as a pernicious assault against what it means to be human that results in desensitisation and could even result in us being consumed by, “well, virtual reality”. There are others, however, who believe in its emancipatory potential, and that recognising that the hyperreality can result in one positively critiquing one’s own perceptions and why we hold them.

In the course of my research, I chanced upon a couple of papers that took especial umbrage with the ‘mediascape’ (neologism courtesy of David Hill) aspect of hyperreality. According to these authors, the influence of hyperreality could be attributed to all manner of antisocial behaviours – one even implied that hyperreality could be ascribed as an influence in the tragic, infamous Columbine school shooting. I put this to James, but after giving the question due consideration, he remains sceptical. “If, after a school shooting, the culprit was interviewed and said that they thought the whole thing was a game [without consequences] then I’d be terrified… but they all say, you know, I just wanted to get back at the fuckers [who tormented me]. I think it’s reasonable to say that most people can tell the difference between a video game and real life, if you will.”

So that’s the naysayers accounted for. What is the justification of those in the pro- camp? Part of it is semantics, or more specifically semiotics – according to some proponents of postmodernism, all social signals are trapped in a recursion loop anyway. James uses our conversation as example – you can nod your head at appropriate intervals and maintain eye contact, which we know represents attentive listening, while in your head you can be a million miles away. All behaviour is learned and, because of social influence, performative – all of our actions and reactions are channelled through a loop of signs that we know to be appropriate, and this compromises their authenticity. As such, on a purely symbolic level, ‘hyperreality’ serves to make clear what was once ambiguous; that all signs are manufactured anyway.

Another defence of hyperreality, and perhaps a more tangibly useful one, is that it forces us to question what we consider to be real and fake. This feeds into James’ fascination with narratology: “one of the most basic narratological principles is that the more time we spend with a character, the more likely the writer is to elicit sympathy from the reader.” This isn’t just a flash in the pan – “people wonder why three triplets, from New Zealand, can die in a mall fire and the whole country feels it… while when in China 10,000 peasants get killed in a flood and people are indifferent.” The narratological principle extends beyond the realm of fiction and seeps inexorably into our lives. This insidious Western narrative doesn’t dehumanise the Chinese peasants in the scenario, not exactly, but it renders it less real and more palatable because the New Zealand triplets have a perceived right to our sympathy. Hyperreality can provide us with an opportunity to interrogate why we feel that some things are more real and present than others, and reflect on the societal influences that make this so.

But now, back to the future: with ‘hyperreality’ increasing its dominion as technology advances, how are we coping with it? James asserts that things have changed already. “Ten years ago, people used to complain about people who were famous just for being famous, but now we’re less inclined to question it.” The reason for this, James hypothesises, is that we’ve become inured to circular symbolic loops. Whether the ramifications of this increasing tolerance to the hyperreal will be detrimental remains to be seen, but James is tentatively optimistic about the future. “Hyperreality makes us question our own uniqueness,” and by extension societal influence; and, as any Philosophy student will tell you, one must necessarily know the parameters of the cage one is trapped in to have any hope of getting out.

My interview with James clarified a few things, but I am still wary of accepting hyperreality as an unimpeachable theory. For one thing, I think it makes a highbrow claim in its definition of ‘hyperreality’. While the internet, video games and television are often seen as examples of components of hyperreality, more ‘sophisticated’ pursuits such as literature do not get cast in its net – this in spite of the fact that literature, almost by definition, requires the boundaries of the real and the fictional to blur. I also think that if hyperreality does exist, its infiltration of ‘real life’ is so entrenched it seems bizarre to not think of hyperreality as just a facet of life. Imagine you’re so terrified of hyperreality you run off into the forest to live an ascetic and hermetic life, avoiding technology at all costs; who is experiencing something that does not constitute ‘reality’ as we know it to be?

Thusly I leave you, with my relationship with hyperreality still conflicted and unresolved. If I may offer one observation of my own before I depart: by now, you’ve surely noticed that feeling grief, despondence, frustration, fury feels just as, if not more, human than feeling happy. If you’re using hyperreality as a tool to achieve constant happiness, then be warned that you’re missing something essential to a fulfilling experience. But to my mind, a theory of hyperreality is flawed because there’s no reason why hyperreality can’t offer a full range of human emotion – and it’s no one’s business telling you that the things that make you feel the way you do is wrong. Go forth and cry to The Notebook, shoot hoodlums on GTA and ride the Fear Fall. It’s your life. Make of it what you will.

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